CATH AND JOSHUA—ACT 1
JL: There’s a place, inland from the south coast of New South Wales, called Bundanon.
CM: The Wadi Wadi of the Yuin Nation are the traditional custodians. The word Bundanon—
JL: —or Bundanoon or Buntanoon—
CM: —means deep gully or deep valley and comes from BU(LAIA):N:DHAIA(LA) meaning "two things deep" and NOON from the pronoun NYUNG meaning "his". (Michael Organ, University of Wollongong Bundanon website). This is the land of Dharawal speakers. Contemporary Wadi Wadi artists in the tradition of their ancestors, still create artwork here. This is also land that Arthur Boyd painted, and near his old residence, the architect Glenn Murcutt was commissioned to build the retreat called Riversdale. It’s a large building built out of concrete and hardwood, with monastic cells for visitors to sleep in and a large common room to work in.
JL: It’s a bit of a journey to get there. It’s about 45 minutes away from the nearest town, Nowra, down a winding quartzy track, over cattle grids and dry creek bed.
CM: It is situated on a bend in the Shoalhaven river, that, like a shiny reptile, slips and slithers its way down to the sea.
JL: On this site created for contemplation and learning, that has also had its fair share of turbulence, we’ve come together to talk.
CM: Who is we?
JL: We’re a group of academics and thinkers from the School of the Arts, English and Media at the University of Wollongong. We’re writers—
CM: —and painters—
JL: —and digital media theorists—
CM: —and English Lit scholars—
JL: —and art historians—
CM: —and designers—
JL: —and socially engaged practitioners—
CM: —and media artists—
JL: —and drone fliers—
CM: —and walkers—
JL: — and biscuit makers—
CM: —and walkers—
JL: —and needleworkers—
CM: —and thinkers.
JL: Collectively, we call ourselves “MECO”, which stands for Material Ecologies. In this context—
CM: —Material means “objects to study”: be it a tree, a bird, a mountain, weather, the internet, cities, people.
JL: Ecologies means “connections between”: an ecology is a system of linked elements.
CM: It’s winter 2016.
JL: We sleep in small monastic rooms, with mattresses set upon concrete slabs and windows that open up to bring the outside in. In the middle of the night, when we’re searching for a spare blanket in the cupboard, we hear the wombats scratching at the concrete base of Murcutt’s building.
CM: Every morning we gather in the large room, an empty space to discuss art, climate change, the world around us. Arthur Boyd’s painting Hanging Rock and Bathers (1985) hangs at one end. There is a piano, and tucked away in one corner, cushions, chairs and tables. A massive sliding glass door takes up one side of the room, the side that faces the river. It’s possible to peel back the wall entirely, to see the whole view. We’re inside and outside. It is the river and sky that fills this place, the bird chatter, kangaroo gazes, and wombat trails.
On the last morning we discuss our proposed new collective project. We’ve been enveloped in fog. No river is visible, nor any bird or animal. It’s like being in a cloud. Dreamlike. Contemplative. We want to respond to the call, sent out by writers and climate change activists, to generate new ways of being in and imagining our world.
JL: We want to write about our changing and disappearing planet.
We want to do something as artists and citizens.
To do something about climate change.
To do something through creative practice.
But we’re not sure how to approach this overwhelming task.
Isabelle Stengers writes “amongst us there are those who know they ought to “do something” but are paralyzed by the disproportionate gap between what they are capable of and what is needed” (2015, 22-23).
So we talk.
CM: We talk about sea-level rises and political systems—
JL: —about weather patterns and styrofoam cups—
CM: —the material and the immaterial—
JL: —the everyday and the sacred. Or the scared.
CM: —We debate the world we live in, shoving about each other’s thoughts, like kids in a rough and tumble game. And as we talk the river and land emerge from the clouds.
JL: A book has been passed around the table: Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015). We read bits out loud, we read privately, we peer over each other’s shoulders.
CM: Scranton says: “In order for us to adapt to this strange new world, we’re going to need more than scientific reports and military policy. We’re going to need new ideas. We’re going to need new myths and new stories, a new conceptual understanding of reality” (19).
JL: We sit silently, together and alone, and think on this and on what we’ve discussed.
CM: Scratch down notes on bits of paper.
JL: Our thoughts drift. One by one, we turn to face the river.
CM: Gaze up at white clouds and seabirds riding air currents.
JL: Little wonder, then, that we start to talk about atmospheres. And scale. And wonder.
CM: Across the table, we throw a large sheet of butcher’s paper. At the top of the sheet we write the word ‘atmospheres’. Underneath, we brainstorm.
JL and CM: (Overlapping.)
Atmosphere as cycles
Atmosphere as affect and sensing
Atmosphere as materiality and immateriality
Atmosphere as pressure
Atmosphere as hope
Atmosphere as urgency
Atmosphere as experience
Atmosphere as juju
as the earth’s blanket
CM: We pause, and catch our breath.
JL: There are atmospheres on the list we don’t agree with or think are silly or are confused by.
What’s VR got to do with it? Virtual Reality?
CM: Voluntary Redundancies?
JL: But other atmospheres produce multiple imaginings, shared conversations.
CM: We get distracted by the word ‘portals’—
JL: —start talking about science fiction and doorways and art production. This process produced sparks that either ignited further connections, or died away.
CM: Our multiple gazing shifted the singular academic process of paper-writing into a more chaotic collective practice.
JL: We were beginning to discover a new way of writing. A process through which individual contributions would be bound together to make one creative offering.
CM: Hang on! We have to be careful not to idealise this process too much—there’s a danger in that.
JL: There were people there that day who felt their ideas were rejected, and who felt bruised by the process.
CM: Ideas bumped up against each other and disagreements flared up—on that day and in the days to come.
JL: There were also people there that day who were not interested in continuing.
CM: Collective process is a compilation of comings and goings, of lift-offs and let-downs.
JL: Of exchanges both delicate and nuanced—
CM: —of stumbles and mishaps, of words spoken—
JL: —not always good—
CM: —not always right.
JL: But collaboration is also about a spark that lights a collective fire—when ideas become bigger than one person’s momentary thought, when perceptions move and change through several bodies. We were beginning to think about a new way of writing, but so far we were only thinking together. We knew we were capable of writing, but we did not yet know what was needed. Not exactly. We did know there had been an unsettling—
CM: —in a good way—
JL: —of both practice and self.
CM: After Riversdale we set up a process where we would write together, meet together, talk together. This happened in small university meeting rooms and in the library—
JL: —in cafes and on trains—
CM: —under trees. In practical terms we had decided one clear thing—that we wanted to write a multi-authored, multi-modal book that used artistic practice to respond to our shared concern.
JL: The book would be collaborative and would respond to the question—what can collaborative practice ‘do’ to help us engage with climate change?
CM: We had been talking together for 5 days and shaping what we wanted to write about and we now articulated a new question: Is there a relationship between the way we were beginning to write, and what we wanted to write about? How might we alter our thoughts about our artistic practice?
JL: Maria Puig de la Bellacasa says that "Caring is relationally into the doings of thinking and knowing. It articulates a notion of thinking-with that resists the individualisation of thinking," (2012, 199).
CM: But Henri Bergson says that “it’s not enough to shout ‘Vive the multiple’: the multiple has to be done.,” (op. cit. 2012, 199).